Land use patterns, roads disrupt genetic connectivity of herbivores: Study - Hindustan Times
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Land use patterns, roads disrupt genetic connectivity of herbivores: Study

Jul 10, 2024 06:02 AM IST

The study also highlights the need for intervention to protect Gaur populations in small, protected areas like Umred Karhandla Wildlife Sanctuary in Maharashtra

A study done by the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), Bengaluru, reveals that change in land use patterns and roads in the Central Indian landscape, consisting of Maharashtra, are disrupting genetic connectivity of two large herbivores - the gaur and sambar.

Maintaining movement among habitat patches usually results in mating and genetic exchange, the loss of which can increase the probability of species extinction, the study reveals. (HT PHOTO)
Maintaining movement among habitat patches usually results in mating and genetic exchange, the loss of which can increase the probability of species extinction, the study reveals. (HT PHOTO)

The study also highlights the need for intervention to protect Gaur populations in small, protected areas like Umred Karhandla Wildlife Sanctuary in Maharashtra.

Published on July 3, in Molecular Ecology, an international journal for research that utilises molecular genetics techniques to address consequential questions in ecology, evolution, behaviour and conservation, the study is the first to examine the genetic connectivity of large herbivores at a landscape scale in India.

Central India, like other areas of conservation concern, faces threats from growing linear infrastructure such as highways, railway lines, and changes in land use patterns, expanding road network, mining activities and other development projects. Such infrastructures hinder animal movement creating fragmented populations confined within small habitat patches disconnected from each other.

Maintaining movement among habitat patches usually results in mating and genetic exchange, the loss of which can increase the probability of species extinction, the study reveals.

Sample collection

To investigate genetic connectivity, the research team collected hundreds of faecal samples of gaur and sambar from Kanha Tiger Reserve, Pench Tiger Reserve, Nagzira-Nawagaon Tiger Reserve, Bor Tiger Reserve, Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve, Umred Karhandla Wildlife Sanctuary and the wildlife corridor between Kanha and Pench Tiger Reserve.

Using Next-Generation Sequencing (NGS) and combination of population and landscape genetic tools, the team investigated whether the species comprised a single contiguous population across the landscape or were fragmented into distinct groups.

They analysed the genetic diversity of gaur and sambar, which is crucial for any species to adapt to sudden environmental changes, diseases, climate shifts, and other stress. The research team also examined natural and artificial landscape features that could hinder animal movement, and whether gaur and sambar responded differently to those features.

“Conservation requires demographic recovery but also sustained connectivity, or gene flow between populations. We hope that studies like this will help spur evidence-based approaches to maintaining connectivity for multiple endangered species in priority landscapes like central India. Conservation action to ensure multi-species connectivity will be critical to sustained conservation and recovery in the face of ongoing development,” said Uma Ramakrishnan, senior author and professor, at NCBS.

Findings

The study highlights that gaur is most impacted by land use land cover change, roads with high traffic and high density of linear infrastructure. The findings indicate high genetic differentiation, suggesting that the animals are present in small populations with little to no gene flow (for example, Bor Tiger Reserve). These fragmented gaur populations also show low levels of genetic diversity.

Researchers are concerned that despite being centrally located among the other protected areas in the landscape, Umred Karhandla Wildlife Sanctuary with a small population is most genetically differentiated and needs conservation attention.

Sambar, besides land use-land cover and high-traffic roads, is also impacted by human presence. Though sambar populations did not show much differentiation, low levels of genetic diversity are concerning.

“Herbivores are crucial for maintaining ecosystem functioning, yet most species remain understudied. While the connectivity of carnivores like tigers and leopards has been investigated, little is known about how herbivores respond to habitat modification and fragmentation. This study underscores that different species have varying needs for connectivity and traversing the landscape” said Dr Abhinav Tyagi, lead author of the study.

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